Air France Concorde crashes, more than 100 people dead

GONESSE, France - With flames and smoke streaking from its engines, an Air France Concorde carrying German tourists to New York for a Caribbean cruise crashed into a hotel outside Paris shortly after takeoff Tuesday. At least 113 people died.

It was the first fatal crash for the needle-nosed supersonic aircraft, and all other Concordes - for 30 years the pride of French and British aviation for their luxury, safety and speed - were grounded.

Air France said one of the plane's four engines appeared to have failed. Some witnesses reported that an engine burst into flame even before the plane left the ground.

The passengers on flight AF4590, chartered by a German tourist agency, included 96 Germans, two Danes, one Austrian and one American, as well as nine crew members, the airline said. The American was a retired Air France employee, but the company did not release a name. Four other people were killed at the small hotel leveled in the crash, the Interior Ministry said.

A pall of acrid smoke rose from the blackened wreckage and over the wheat fields at Gonesse, a small town near Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. Firefighters sprayed the rubble with water, and the twisted metal from the plane - which was fully fueled for its trans-Altantic run - was hardly recognizable as a fuselage.

French legal experts were examining the charred bodies of the 113 victims for identification.

French television showed a dramatic photograph of the disabled plane flying low over the airport, flames spewing from the engines on one wing.

The Concorde struggled to gain altitude, then banked before slamming into the hotel.

''We saw flames shoot up 40 meters (120 feet) and there was a huge boom,'' said Samir Hossein, a 15-year-old student from Gonesse who was playing tennis. ''The pilot tried to yank it up, but it was too late.''

''For those who were witnesses, of whom I was one, it seems that there was a fire in one or more of the engines on takeoff,'' Air France President Jean-Cyril Spinetta told reporters at the airport.

Early Wednesday, the transportation ministry said the plane's two flight recorders, which were damaged in the crash, had been found. Experts said possible causes of engine problems ranged from birds flying into the air intake to mechanical failure. The plane was powered by Rolls Royce Olympus 593 engines.

The crash did not appear to be linked to cracks found recently in both British Airways and Air France Concordes. Air France said this particular plane, in service since 1980, did not have reported fissures.

The first Concorde plane flew in 1969. With the crash, there are now 12 of the distinctive delta-wing jets in the Air France and British Airways fleets. British Airways canceled its two Tuesday night Concorde flights from London to New York and New York to London.

French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot ordered all Concorde flights suspended for Wednesday. Air France's Spinetta said the day would be used to check the rest of the company's Concordes.

In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it would send an investigator to Paris because the Concorde regularly flies to the United States.

The plane that crashed had flown 12,000 hours and had its last mechanical checkup July 21.

Police said three people on board the flight were under 18 years old. Five people on the ground were injured, police said. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said their condition was ''good from a medical standpoint.''

Moments after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle at 4:44 p.m, the plane slammed into a parking lot and the 40-room Hotelissimo, surrounded by farmlands about 9 miles northeast of central Paris. A larger hotel next door, Relais Bleu, escaped damage.

British businessman Darren Atkins told SKY TV news he was aboard another aircraft behind the Concorde on the tarmac. ''As it accelerated down the runway the engine was already smoking.''

''Before it started to take off the left hand engines were visibly on fire,'' he said. ''They were burning very heavily. So much so in fact on the tarmac was some debris that had clearly fallen off the engine,'' he said.

Sylvie Lucas of Paris, who was at the airport waiting for her children, also said she saw the plane on fire before it lifted off.

''We were waiting to hear the explosion because we thought it was going to fall here (at the airport),'' Lucas told The Associated Press.

Frederic Savery, 21, was driving along the highway when he saw the plane go down. ''It passed 30 meters (60 feet) above us, the whole back end of the plane was on fire,'' he told The AP. ''We saw it start to turn, but we didn't hear a noise when it crashed. All of a sudden, everything was black, we stopped right there and called the firefighters.''

The passengers had been on a trip meant to savor: champagne on the Concorde, then a leisurely cruise on the MS Deutschland through the Panama Canal to Ecuador.

Tour operator Peter Deilmann said the cruise, which had a total of 510 passengers booked, would not be canceled.

The Concorde, which crosses the Atlantic at 1,350 mph, has been considered among the world's safest planes. Its only major scare came in 1979, when a bad landing blew out a plane's tires. The incident led to a design modification.

The plane is popular with celebrities, world-class athletes and the rich. It flies above turbulence at nearly 60,000 feet, crossing the Atlantic in about 3 hours, much faster than regular jetliners.

A roundtrip Paris-New York ticket costs $9,000, roughly 25 percent more than first class on a regular jet. A London-New York roundtrip runs $9,850.

Air France officials have said in the past that their current fleet was fit to fly safely until 2007.

Jospin, visibly moved, and French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot visited the crash scene. ''It's a terrible moment,'' Gayssot said. President Jacques Chirac promised to pay homage Wednesday to the victims.

Presidential spokeswoman, Agathe Sanson, said Chirac was leaving the airport at the time of the crash, having just returned from the G-8 summit in Japan.

Condolences poured in from all over, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Clinton. ''I wanted to extend the deepest condolences of the American people to the families of those who are lost,'' Clinton said.


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